How Indonesia’s national mapping project got off course

Map showing the different regions of Indonesia. Photo: Peter Fitzgerald, Indonesian translation by Bennylin / CC BY-SA

A national mapping project in Indonesia aims to use data to find solutions to land conflicts across the country. But indigenous groups say the government refuses to recognize their maps of traditional territory—throwing the land tenure of over a quarter of the country’s population into question.


A nationwide mapping project in Indonesia is nearing completion after almost a decade of work, with government officials saying data on land rights and tenure will help resolve ongoing disputes across the country.

Land conflicts are common in Indonesia, as indigenous groups and rural communities often see their homes and territories claimed by government bodies or private companies seeking to develop the land.

“By addressing overlaps in the different maps with the One Map Policy, we can not only resolve disputes, but also promote more efficient land use that benefits communities and businesses,” Prabianto Mukti Wibowo, assistant deputy minister for forest governance, told Reuters. Indonesian President Jokowi Widodo said earlier this year that the One Map project will be done by December.

But indigenous and other small landholders say that government officials and private actors will use the new national mapping database as a tool to push them off their land. Over a quarter of Indonesia’s population belongs to indigenous groups—an estimated 50-70 million people. Groups across Indonesia, including the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), the largest network of indigenous groups in Indonesia, are calling on the government to involve local communities in the One Map Policy.

The program began in 2011 under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as an initiative to bring together mapping data from local authorities and different branches of government. But indigenous communities have struggled to get officials to include their own land claims in the mapping project, though some of their territorial rights go back thousands of years—predating modern land tenure systems or concessions for agriculture and other development by a large margin.

As of last year, AMAN had worked with local communities to map over 77,600 square kilometers of territory belonging to 704 indigenous groups. Another “participatory” mapping project by the Indonesian Community Mapping Network (JKPP) is compiling data on 14 million hectares in 27 provinces.

“They have tried to get acknowledgement of their existence by doing mapping and they give the result to the local and central government,” said Safrudin Mahendra, executive director at civil society group Save Our Borneo, speaking with Al Jazeera. “But still, they have not got clear acknowledgement for their right to the land. The people there feel like they are not being seen at all.”

“There are too many maps—we have 85 thematic maps for forestry, mining, plantations, customary forests, etc,” Wibowo told Reuters. “We need to reconcile them all before settling a claim. We are also trying to reconcile AMAN’s map, but there are some discrepancies, and we have to consider them carefully.”

Dayak couples. Photo: Antonsurya12 / CC BY-SA

Will mapping data solve Indonesia’s land conflicts?

According to some estimates, land disputes affect some 40% of land in Indonesia. The futures of many communities are thrown into question as the country pushes to develop and improve lives across the country.

Near the Malaysian border in Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo, 300,000 people from indigenous Dayak groups are reportedly at risk of displacement due to road building, mining operations and new plantations.

“In the eyes of the law, these communities only have secure land tenure if they map and register their customary lands,” Angus MacInnes, a consultant with the civil society group the Forest People’s Programme, told ASEAN Today in August. “[It’s] an onerous and burdensome process that can take over five years based on current processes.”

Rural communities in West Sumatra are similarly defending their land against what they claim are illegal palm plantations and the Indonesian government is opening up contested territory across West Papua for coal mining.

The government is also pushing a plan to turn 2 million acres on Borneo, Sumatra and potentially other islands into new farmland, prompting conflict over the rights of indigenous groups as well as environmental impacts.

But without recognizing local residents’ land claims, the One Map Policy may be used as a tool to push them off their territory. Rather than sharing data to help protect their land claims, the mapping project risks centralizing control over land titles.

“The policy is diverting from its original purposes. Transparency is supposed to be one of the main principles of this policy but the map is inaccessible,” Muhammad Arman, director of law and human rights at AMAN, told Al Jazeera. The map itself is only accessible to high level government officials.

New push to formalize tenure may allow land grabs, say critics

The mapping project is part of a push by the Indonesian government to officially register titles for all land in the country by 2025.

In September 2019, cities across Indonesia saw some of the country’s largest popular protests since the movement that led to the overthrow of the Suharto government in the late 1980s. Protestors called for a range of reforms, from stopping proposed changes to the criminal code to the withdrawal of troops from Papua and steps to prevent massive forest fires in Borneo and Sumatra.

The demonstrators also called for lawmakers to scrap a proposed land bill that would establish new crimes and penalties for land law violations and make it difficult for individual landowners to hold onto their property, according to critics. The new law would set a two-year deadline for landowners to register their land with the central government. Any land unregistered after two years would be given over to the government.

Indigenous groups say the government will use this two-year cutoff to take away their land. In 2012, the country’s constitutional court ruled that indigenous peoples have the right to manage forest land in their traditional territory and that the state does not have the right to take possession of these forests. Jokowi then promised to return 12.7 million hectares of land to indigenous groups.

But since then, the government has only formally recognized the rights of a small portion of this—1.9 million hectares according to one report, but other estimates are far lower. The government also only recognizes customary land claims to forests—communal lands that are not forest can be categorized as “areas for other use,” an inaccurate label.

If the new land bill passes, data from the national mapping project could be used to prevent rural residents from registering their land; anyone excluded from the mapping database could see the state seize their land after two years.

The One Map program shows the power of producing and using data to address land conflicts. But as critics say it excludes many local and indigenous communities, ignoring their land claims, Indonesia’s map may fall well short of its goal.

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